Janet reads Les Mis: in which Victor Hugo plays historian

If you want the embarrassing truth, I had to return Les Mis to the library uncompleted. Despite having renewed the novel approximately three times, I had only finished Part 1: Fantine.

Fortunately, no one else wanted to read it, so I borrowed it again almost immediately, and promptly continued my habit of Not Reading. The book sits on my chair atop the stack of notes I have made on it, unread for days at a time.

But now! Courage, Janet! On with Part 2: Cosette!

Or not?

Guess what Part 2: Cosette begins with?

On a fine May morning last year (that is to say, in the year 1861) a traveller, the author of this tale, walked from Nivelles in the direction of La Hulpe. (p. 279)

Victor Hugo wasn’t content with using Marius as a self-insert, or with inventing an interaction between a relative of his and some writing of the bishop’s to “verify” his fictional saint; no, Victor Hugo has to actually go ahead and stick himself in the story. Ever read a book where the author-narrator took the whole “narrative objectivity is dead, so I shall make my story, which is ostensibly about another person, all. about.me!!!!!” too far? (Or, you know, used this method at all?) Victor Hugo practically invented this.

And why does the poor reader have to follow Victor Hugo’s fictionalized self down side trails in France? Don’t be silly – what account of French history is complete without a detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo?

Victor Hugo was a very weird man.

On the plus side, there are some eerie side-stories that would be perfect reading for halloween, which may even be true; they sound like the sort of thing that some of my history teachers (or classmates) would have brought up just for the fun of it. Example:

On the left, as one leaves the chapel, is a well, one of two in the courtyard. But why has this one no bucket or hoisting-gear? Why is water never drawn from it?Because it is filled with skeletons. (p. 282)

Commence long story which relates details from the life of the last person to draw water from this well; a battle with resultant corpses; the threat of typhus, and a REALLY CREEPY RUMOUR before “the traveler” moves on to describe the next part of this physical location, and all IT’S history.

Case in point:

The well was a deep one, and so it became a tomb. Three hundred were flung into it, perhaps to hurriedly. Were they all dead? Legend says not, and that on the night following the burial voices were heard calling for help. (p. 283)

This passage reminds me of The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, actually. Hey, Les Mis, you might be rising in my esteem.

The succeeding few chapters contain little sentences that sound amazingly like fic prompts, and those amazingly certain asides that some historians use and which history students (and professors) love to debate endlessly. For example,

Had it not rained in the night of 17-18 June 1815, the future of Europe would have been different. (p. 285)

Sorry – am I sitting in my house, reading a brick, or am I in the part of undergrad history classes where the prof smiles and invites the class to critique the source texts assigned for reading? Because this passage, and the many like it sprinkled generously throughout Les Mis, sound suspiciously like the history textbooks wherein some scholar has examined the facts, assembled a fairly coherent and generally well-reasoned argument, and then proceeds to draw unwarranted conclusions couched in absolute terms. (History class erupts in amused and sometimes passionate criticism from students who admire the assembled facts and agree with large parts of the argument, but can’t believe that Scholar A forgot to consider x, y, and z, much less that Scholar B would make the leap in logic from d to pi. Pfft, does earning a doctorate not involve one basic logic class?) (History students are hilarious and, like librarians, have the uncanny ability to dig up the most obscure and esoteric facts.)

Also, Victor Hugo, maybe you died before the pushback against Chosen Ones became common, but hinging the political fate of a continent on the weather conditions of one day is a little extreme.

Then again, extreme is perhaps Hugo’s forte. And on the other hand, he makes an excellent point about historians (and historical reinactments):

No narrator, be he never so conscientious, can fix the exact shape of that great ugly cloud that is called a battle. (p. 291)

And about imperialist looters history over-enthusiasts:

Wellington, worried but impassive, had remained throughout the same day… in the shade of an elm-tree which an Englishman, a vandal enthusiast, subsequently bought for 200 francs, cut down and took away. (p. 293)

“Vandal enthusiast” belongs on the list of great insults. It’s not quite as good as “hetero sex fiend,”* but it has its place.

So there are moments. It’s not all endless tangents. Wait, that’s a lie, Les Mis is all about those tangents; but they’re interesting. Mostly. (Even if your inner history student will glare at the page and wave her ghostly hands in exasperation and increasing cynicism.)

And! Because Victor Hugo is the last word in blatant, there’s a description of Napoleon unwittingly on the eve of his defeat that I’m pretty sure is foreshadowing for the also-doomed (sorry, spoilers!) Enjolras. Blast it, Hugo.

The man of marble, the profound visionary (p. 294)

And, albeit written about Napoleon’s defeat rather than about the conditions that created the students’ June revolution:

When the earth is overcharged with suffering, a mysterious lament rising from the shadows is heard in the heights. (p. 303)

As yet, no word of Cosette. She hasn’t been born yet. Oh, Hugo.

As ever, Dory inspires: *musical notes* Just keep reading, just keep reading, just keep reading, reading, reading…


* Which actually should be typed (and said) in all-caps, courtesy of one Sirius Black in merlywhirls’ laugh-out-loud Harry Potter au fic Text Talk.